Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The iPad is Magical but it is not a Mystery

Dan Bricklin has an excellent blog post about the extraordinary but hard-to-define magic of the iPad. It is one of those rare blog postings that one would like to offer to every one who thinks about the way apps are working on the iPad and what the iPad can do for publishers and readers. Here is a chunk of Bricklin-wisdom:

The way I see it, what makes the iPad magical is that with it we are the magician. The iPad is our own specially marked desk of cards. We now have power to easily and confidently control things that we previously did not. It is a very empowering tool.

With the iPad, we are the masterful magician, not the audience watching in awe.

Why is this so? Isn't the iPad just a big iPod touch?

As I pointed out in my first iPad essay, the iPad gives us more screen space than a pocket device like an iPhone to expose control points and to make the operation of those controls clear and easily accessible with fingers. The iPhone-size screens have room for mainly one major UI-control cluster plus a small toolbar or two -- when the keyboard is up there isn't room for almost anything other than a small view into what you are entering with little context. The iPad does not have such severe limitations, having room for many controls and explanatory information. You can sit back in your seat (like Steve Jobs at the announcement) and comfortably control the device, unlike an iPhone where you pull it to your face and squint to see the controls (especially if you are over 40 like I am).

The use of touch and the application of the capabilities of the graphics processor to give the illusion of smooth flowing, directly manipulated operations enhances the feeling of control. The larger screen in a still-portable flat form factor makes it comfortable for multiple individuals to watch as any one of them controls changes -- public magic, not private exploration. The wireless connectivity quickly brings requested data in on demand. The large screen has enough room to give you context and depth of information from that data. Is the Apple iPad really "magical"?

This is helpful and enlightening because much of the magic in the iPad is a result of its simplicity and the way in which its form factor (mid-size, touchability and screen resolution) encourage a direct and human relationship between the object as instrument or display, and the reading or viewing subject as mover and navigator. The success and the magic of the iPad is both subtle and simple, but it is not a mystery, because the way it works is very simple but with a high degree of user control and involvement. Bricklin goes on to note that the iBooks app is only 'so so' in the magic stakes.

Likewise, I've found some other reading applications, like magazines, that look really nice, and seem to give you control, but that fail to deliver enough when you try reading and perusing the publication -- you feel hampered and long for bound paper that you can skim through and with which you can easily flip back and forth with the right feel. As they say, "God is in the details" -- details of implementation are important and can distinguish the winners from the losers.

To me, a computer is a tool. You use tools to get things done. In the case of the iPad, you can use it to read, to write, to watch, to search, to communicate, to play, and more. The challenge in app design is to give the user a feeling of appropriate and comfortable control.
Bricklin does not say this, but I think that many of the newly re-designed magazine apps have been making a grave mistake by supposing that users (or shall we call them 'readers') want something very different from the print magazine that they already know. Most subscribers and readers like the magazine that they subscribe to or read because it is the way it is. For a loyal reader of The Spectator, or The Wire, the digital edition of the magazine, whether on the iPad or on Android, or the web, has to be recognizably the magazine to which the customer is a loyal subscriber. Of course things will change, and they should change, when the magazine becomes digital. But breaking the mould, and starting again, is a mistake because offering readers a new 'matrix' organisation for the magazine framework that they already know is really taking control away from the reader. We know the way a magazine works and we understand that it can be quickly flipped through with sideways skimming. Asking or expecting the reader to navigate with new radically new conventions is likely to puzzle and distract. Similar thoughts apply to multi-media. It is great, indeed magical, that magazines can now incorporate sound and video in their digital manifestations. But magazines are not TV programmes or chat shows. After a bout of early enthusiasm and exuberance, I suspect that magazine publishers and editors are learning that video and hypermedia devices should be used sparingly and subtly in iPad editions. As Dan Bricklin puts it "The challenge in app design is to give the user a feeling of appropriate and comfortable control." You don't do that by ignoring all the subtleties and 'affordances' in the wonderful print objects which are the starting point for creating magical, digital, magazine apps.

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